Explosive history of cove with hidden cache of gold bullion
This week our Secret Seaside series takes us to a mysterious hidden coast beyond the Gunpowder Plot…
Nowadays the area is more officially known as Perranporth Airfield, but once upon a time the flat bald hilltop belonged to the Nobel company – famous for both international awards and, in the old days, for explosives. During the Great War, Nobel mined wolfram here to produce nitro-glycerine.
Tucked down on the coast beyond the airfield – on the craggy much-messed-about-with littoral between Perranporth at St Agnes – there is a hidden beach called Trevallas Porth, which is arguably the least visited seaside in all of Cornwall you can drive to.
That's our rough, ready, salty and rather lovely destination – but first let's find out about that Gunpowder Plot…
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One of the best guide books ever written about the Westcountry mentions the phrase and I make no excuses for quoting from JRA Hockin's 1936 Walking in Cornwall here: "One can walk right out to and round Cigga Head from Perranporth – a few years ago this was strictly forbidden because Nobel's had their explosive works and dumps on it.
"Today… there are no more remains of the arsenal than the empty, turfed-up dynamite tanks, an abandoned lorry and one or two quarries… The thickly hedged lane on the ridge on the west side of Gunpowder Plot offers a quicker and more sheltered means of reaching Trevellas Porth."
It still offers one route to reach our beach – although if you have a largish car you might want to think twice about taking the lane down into Cross Coombe (as the valley behind the beach is called) from the north.
Walkers can, of course, arrive via the South West Coast Path which has run a particularly dramatic and interesting course south of Perranporth.
In Hockin's day this area was impassable even though the "gunpowder plot" people had ceased their explosive industry. He refers to: "A bewildering tangle of paths and tracks" which crossed "torn and pitted heather slopes".
Today this is an excellent walk – one which takes you past Cigga Head and around inaccessible Hanover Cove. The name has nothing to do with anywhere in Germany, but everything to do with a Falmouth packet brig which was homeward bound from Lisbon in December 1763.
It must have been an awfully fierce gale that blew the Hanover north of Land's End and deposited her here on the morning of the 13th. Unlucky for some – and certainly for the majority of the 27 crew and three passengers aboard. Only two men and a boy managed to get ashore alive after she foundered.
Along with those who perished, a massive amount of gold bullion remained aboard – reckoned to have been £60,000 worth of gold coins – a vast amount in those days…
The authorities had to wait for three days for the seas to die down – then apparently the weather calmed and stayed unusually quiet for an entire month. Most of the gold was recovered, but not all. To this day rumours abound that gold coins can be found down in the bowels of Hanover Cove.
It's metal of a different kind that once made our secret seaside a busy place – and it's an industry that just about still exists. Few valleys in this peninsula have been quite so ravaged by the hand of man as Cross Coombe – the short steep defile is a massive rural exhibit which declaims the fact that Cornwall's tin industry once worked long and hard in these parts.
And indeed the Blue Hills Tin Streams works is the only place where Cornish tin is currently worked. The Wills family – long connected with tin extraction in Cornwall – have been working away on the site for the past 12 years – and if you want to see the process, best visit before the end of the month when the place closes for winter… Blue Hills Tin Streams will be open Monday to Saturday from 10am until 2pm for the next three weeks.
If we go down the ravaged valley from the works we reach our secret seaside – and once again I make no excuses when I quote from the eloquent Mr Hockin who described this coast so well: "These grim cliffs of raw, disjointed rock, baked to all colours and consistencies by the heat of the granite intrusions behind, weathered into unapproachable chaos by the storms in front, and, in many places, ripped and ravaged by man from above with surface lode-workings and mine adits, these broken tattered knees of gaunt wind-worn hills, are absolutely hypnotic when a high sea is running.
"I shall not forget one gale I spent an hour watching at Trevellas Porth – the mouth of the most desolate of all Cornish coombes," he wrote. "The sea was bouncing clean over Man and His Man [twin rock outcrops] two miles out and dashing the full height of St Agnes Head cliffs, near 200 feet."
This paragraph explains something of the geography of our secret seaside. The excellent little beach here (shingle, sand and rock-pools, especially at low tide) is part of a greater indentation in the coast called Trevaunance Cove – but this appellation tends only to be used in connection with the bay which acts as St Agnes town beach.
As Hockin says, Trevallas is one of two entrances to Trevaunance Cove, which he describes as: "Cornwall's nearest match to Devon's Lynmouth – with the Beacon towering 600 feet above it."
For the walker (unless the tide is well down and you scramble across the shore) the only way to reach the second – and more civilised and populated – half of Trevaunance Cove is to ascend and descend the flanks of the Blue Hills.
I once made the journey on behalf of this newspaper to interview a well known local man called Big Al Blundeson who told me many strange things about the beaches here, including some words he had made up and copyrighted.
"Beachography is about how tides, waves, wind and weather work on all beaches. It's basically a surfer's knowledge or a fisherman's," said Al. "Beachology – that's the marine and wildlife side."
I will never forget that day I spent talking to Al about beachography and beachology. He made pots of tea and enthused about everything and anything to do with his beloved seaside. He even pointed to an island which he claimed was the first pyramid in the world and something to do with the secret of Atlantis. He also claimed to be a modern King Arthur in search of 52,000 present-day knights.
But then, this is a strange part of Cornwall – somehow just a little bit different from the other parts of the county – which is quite different to anywhere else in the UK.
Some people call this ravaged coastal area "Badlands" – but maybe that's an attempt to keep it secret and unknown. At least it's not going quite as far as hatching a gunpowder plot…